Outdoor Peer Mentors Making the Outdoors More Inclusive
University of Denver students wanting to try one of the many outdoor recreational opportunities Colorado offers soon will have a guiding hand, thanks to the Outdoor Peer Mentor program. The very first class of Outdoor Peer Mentors (OPM) are currently being recruited and trained by the Outdoor Leadership Lab at DU’s James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus (KMC).
“We’re training students to become mentors and leaders in the outdoor community,” says Matt Jensen, director of outdoor experience and programs at KMC, who supervises the OPM program.
Students who want to become OPMs, which is a part-time paid position, take two classes as part of their training. The first, 4D Peer Leadership, covers coaching, group development and understanding what mentorship is. Mentors also learn the technical skills of their selected outdoor specialty, such as climbing, backpacking, mountain biking, or other activities. They go on weekend trips to refine those skills and, at the end of the term, put the classroom and outdoor lab experiences together—showcasing DU’s holistic philosophy of education and the 4D Experience.
They also must take an 80-hour wilderness first responder class so they can respond to medical situations. This is accompanied by training in risk management, which Jensen says is important because many of the students likely are “making decisions in risky environments” on their own for the first time.
“The information and skills they learn in that class apply elsewhere,” he says. OPMs hone leadership skills that can serve them in campus organizations and, ultimately, the communities where they live and work.
All the training combines to give mentors the skills and confidence to do the job. “You must have the understanding of how you take care of yourself on a 12-day backpacking trip so you can take care of others,” Jensen says.
And for those who are bitten by the outdoors bug, it can be life altering, opening paths students don’t know exist, says Jensen, who was a psychology major at the University of Nebraska. Since many students are attracted to Colorado for its outdoor recreational opportunities, this program gives the many who end up staying here an advantage. “It is a strong baseline for those who are looking to work professionally in the outdoors industry,” Jensen says. “Ultimately, they will be able to lead trips, coach or instruct outdoor activities.”
And those skills travel. They can be applied within Colorado, regionally or even internationally.
Jensen sees the potential for the KMC to help bring the DU outdoor community together via OPMs. He points out that outdoor recreation clubs have a long history at DU, usually existing in pockets that don’t always interact. “Now we can centralize it for students to find and receive that training,” he says.
Another goal of the OPM program is to create a more inclusive outdoor community.
While some communities on the DU campus have not previously been exposed to outdoor activities, that should not be a barrier to participating now and becoming an OPM, Jensen says. The main qualification is a desire to lead people in an outdoor setting.
“We want to cast as wide a net as possible,” Jensen says. “If you have the desire to be an outdoor leader, we will get your there.”
OPMs have to be a bit of everything to the students with whom they work: part coach, counselor, advocate and cheerleader. Jensen says it is about giving good advice, providing support and guidance to others who are pursuing their outdoor interests and remembering that it is the other person’s journey. The key is to share interests and knowledge in a way that “invigorates others to continue,” Jensen says.
The OPM program is taking applications for the winter and spring classes. Jensen says the process isn’t competitive; the application simply asks students to give a picture of their interests and background.
“Bringing the Kennedy Mountain Campus to life, there were so many opportunities, and it seemed like a natural way to start building a really strong foundation for students to build leadership in an outdoor setting,” Jensen says.
The Outdoor Leadership Lab and OPM are headquartered on the 724-acre mountain campus, located at Red Feather Lakes northwest of Fort Collins, Colo., adjacent to the Roosevelt National Forest. The campus uniquely focuses on the wellness and character dimensions of DU’s 4D Experience. No tuition or student fees are used to operate it. Supported solely through philanthropy and third-party revenue, KMC is, ultimately, about designing an educational experience that augments the goals and programs of the urban campus.